Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The blahs

The end of 2012 and start of 2013 has been a blah bleh meh time for me reading-wise. I got stuck in one of those Mobius strip type of loops where each new book I'd start turned out to be as bad or worse than the one I'd just given up on and I felt a panicky desperate sense that I would never escape to a good book. I must have started and stopped four or five books. And read through to the finish several that were at least unmemorable (go ahead, ask me their titles--I don't remember!) plus at least two that were big disappointments.

Those two were disappointing because they fell far short of the excellence I'd expected because of the blurbs, reviews and awards, which excellence, all this commentary had led me to believe, included some political shading that would please me. It did not come to pass, not in my read of either The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst or Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt. From the first, nearly 10 years old now and widely acclaimed, I'd expected a sharp takedown of Thatcherism served up with literary beauty. I found it neither beautiful nor sharp. An exercise in neurasthenic ennui more like it. From the second, which I think just came out in 2012, I'd looked for a pithy satire on workplace sexism or something along those lines. I'm sorry to say (and can I really be the only one who feels this way?) I found this book to be very low level, almost startlingly so, as any sort of satire or critique, and way too long to boot. It neither made me laugh--and really, it's not hard to make me laugh--nor delivered a punch to my gut. All it did was make me sad for how low the bar is or, rather, how stunted any effort at this sort of thing almost necessarily is at this point in this debased culture that can't even spawn any first-rate literary savagery against the endless horrors of U.S. society.

Necessarily? No, I can't believe it's not possible for somebody to do it right. It is done right elsewhere. The best counter-example that comes to mind is from France. I'm talking about the work of Lydie Salvayre and Marie Darrieussecq. I haven't read all their books but I have read four--The LectureEveryday Life, and The Award by Salvayre and Pig Tales by Darrieussecq--and wow they pack precisely the punch Lightning Rods is apparently meant to but doesn't. At, might I add, half the length or less. Kudos to the translators--Linda Coverdale, Jane Kuntz and Jane Davey--for managing the tricky task of conveying Salvayre's and Darrieussecq's deep-funny-horrifying-demented digs at work and sex roles and family life, at society, that is, under late-stage capitalism. I guess we'll just have to keep waiting and hoping for such a writer to turn up hereabouts.